When a White Whale Shows Up and Panic Hits

I panicked about a rare soccer card until the mailman delivered it into my fat, greedy hands

Readers of this blog, or probably better yet, those that follow the site’s Twitter account, know that I have a penchant for rare stuff. This rare stuff is not always accompanied by a high price tag, thank God. And I’m not about chasing every rare thing under the sun. But I always get a thrill when I find a rare card that has some kind of meaning to it for me.

Almost entirely, finding these white whale cards comes at inopportune times. Sometimes, that has been while lying in bed late at night while I’m about to drift off to sleep and make the mistake of hopping on my cell phone. Others, it’s been while I’m in a checkout line with a cart full of items. And others, well, you get the idea.

This past weekend, it was at a Subway.

Godfrey Phillips was one of many famous tobacco companies offering cigarette cards in the UK. Some others off the top of my head would be Wills, Churchman, and Players. There are countless others.

UK cigarette cards are not really the same as ones that were issued here in the U.S. For one thing, many of them are found in great condition as they were more collected by adults as opposed to ones here that were kept in children’s pockets and such. That also meant that more of them were kept, making them less rare. They also mostly featured sports like soccer and cricket, which aren’t as popular with (and subsequently, as valuable to) American collectors.

In short, many of them aren’t hard to find thanks to eBay and international sellers. But that isn’t always the case.

1896 Godfrey Phillips Soccer W.I. Bassett Back1896 Godfrey Phillips Soccer W.I. BassettSee, in 1896, Godfrey Phillips produced a set almost certainly in very small quantities. We can make that assumption based on the rarity of the cards compared other similar issues. Many UK sets produced around that time are tough to find but this Godfrey Phillips set is darn near impossible. The set has a somewhat generic name of ‘General Interest’, which is what other sets were commonly called (like Ogden’s, for example). General Interest sets were typically ones that covered a wide range of subjects.

Collectors will find all sorts of things featured in the short Godfrey Phillips set. I’ve seen 13 cards referenced as making up the entire issue but, given the rarity, am not even sure about that, to be honest. Included are both athletes and non-athletes. There are even pictures of some famous London buildings. But the real highlights are three cards – one featuring famed cricketer W.G. Grace and two picturing somewhat famous soccer players in that time, W.C. Athersmith and W.I. Barrett. To give you an idea of the rarity, I’ve never even seen most cards in the set and PSA has graded a grand total of seven cards from the entire set to date (not seven different cards – only seven total of the aforementioned three cards).

At any rate, I was introduced to the set when I stumbled upon an Athersmith card on eBay earlier this year. I couldn’t even tell you how I found it but the only reason I clicked on the link was because the listing included the title, ‘1st Soccer Card.’

By this point, I was intrigued. The auction was for a rough looking BVG 1.5 card of W.C. Athersmith, a soccer player for Aston Villa. There wasn’t much of a description but I was able to research the set a little bit and after talking with a prominent soccer card collector, learned that the cards from the set are indeed considered by some to be the first true soccer cards featuring real players.

Other ‘cards’ such as cabinets (photographs that were mounted onto cardboard) surely existed. But what about cards that were distributed with a product or sold individually? Could these Godfrey Phillips cards be the first of those? Well, even that may not technically be true. For example, there is this card of some chap named Duncan McLean. It is the only known one and may have been issued during 1892-1895. That isn’t a certainty but others could exist. Still, what we’ve got here with the two Godfrey Phillips soccer cards are, if nothing else, some of the earliest cards for the world’s most popular sport.

Despite that, I waited on bidding on the Athersmith. The asking price was about $60 and I quite honestly wasn’t sure it would sell. Really, I was hoping it would go unsold and that the seller would lower it. That turned out to be wishful thinking as the card got a bid late and was officially off the market.

Almost instantly, I started kicking myself for not buying it. That feeling only grew since, the more I looked for the cards, the more I learned they were not easy to find. These things appeared to be quite rare and at this point, I was bummed.

I created an eBay search for them shortly after that but the only thing that kept appearing was a card of one of the buildings in the set, which I had zero interest in.

And then, it happened.

I’m sitting in the parking lot of Subway and get an email alert from eBay for one of my, quite literally, 100 saved searches (and it’s only at 100 because that’s the max). Most of the time on the tougher cards, these turn out to be false alarms with other unrelated items showing up instead. But for the heck of it, I clicked on it and, voila – there, in all of its glory, was a card of W.I. Bassett, the other soccer player in the set.

The card was a better one to have than the earlier Athersmith that I saw. The most important thing is that it was in much better condition and the price was about the same. And while both players seemed like notable ones (each played for England’s national team), Bassett was also called one of the game’s first celebrities according to his very official Wikipedia page.

I nearly tripped over myself in my haste to buy it but then realized the card was being sold by COMC. This presented an interesting quandary. Do I click ‘Buy Now,’ pay full price for the card (which was another $20 or so), and be happy I found something I might, quite literally, not see for years on end? Or do I risk it, log into COMC from my phone, add funds, and buy it there to save a few bucks? I reluctantly chose the latter, despite the fact that the card already had a Watcher and had clearly drawn some attention. Most would probably consider this to be a stupid idea, especially since I needed to add funds to my COMC account first.

But in about 2-3 extra minutes, I successfully navigated the COMC site and made the purchase, avoiding making an offer and simply buying it for the asked price — generally, a COMC no-no. But my anxiety was heightened as I realized the card was still for sale on eBay.

Now, in the event of a card selling either there or on their eBay page, COMC’s practice is to have the card removed as quickly as possible to avoid it selling twice. But I didn’t know how long that would take. In addition, while it looked like I technically got the card first, I didn’t know if that would be calculated properly.

I then had the idea of placing the order on eBay, too, to ensure no disappointment. But while I knew I would only ultimately get charged once for the card, since the card was more expensive there, I didn’t want to be on the hook for that amount as opposed to the lower COMC price.

A little later, the card was showing as unavailable on eBay but I also had no idea if that was because COMC yanked it due to my purchase of it on their site or if someone else had swooped in on eBay and bought it. So my anxiety was heightened as I wondered if I would soon get an email telling me I didn’t get the card.

Fortunately, no such email came and I requested a shipment from COMC to have the card sent to me. It arrived today and I was thrilled. The anxiety didn’t quite disappear completely until it was safe and sound. But now that it is, I’m more than thrilled with this rare find.

Now, if I can just track down an Athersmith.

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